A group of 11 British veterans of the First World War - with a combined age of more than 1,000 years - returned to France yesterday to receive the thanks of the French people for their contribution to the war which shaped the century.
Fred Bunday, 98, became the first British serviceman of the Great War to receive the Legion d'Honneur on French soil since President Jacques Chirac offered his country's highest award to all surviving Allied veterans of the war last year. Other members of the group were given their medals in ceremonies in Britain.
Mr Bunday, who served in the Royal Navy in 1917 and 1918, stood ramrod straight to be presented with his award in the ceremony at Les Invalides, a few feet from the tomb of the Emperor Napoleon.
He did not waver or flinch, even when gripped by the shoulders and thoroughly kissed on both cheeks by General Jean Guinard of the French army. "I feel terrifically honoured to receive the medal in France," Mr Bunday said later, walking with a cane but otherwise unaided.
"I believe I'm the first from Britain to do so since President Chirac made this fantastic offer. I feel I've made history in my own way, just as my father did. He was in the Navy too and he was one of the pall-bearers for Queen Victoria."
Mr Bunday, who is from Portsmouth but now lives near Bognor in West Sussex, was 15 when he joined the Navy in 1917. He served until the end of the Second World War - one of the few men who saw active service in both wars. "My great-great-grandsons will be delighted," he said. "I have four of them under eight, and they keep saying to me, `Grandad, when can we see your new medal?'."
Around five million British soldiers served in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918. More than 600,000 of them died in battle. Of the survivors of the survivors, there are 423 recorded as still alive by the First World War Veterans' Association (FWWVA). Of these, 170 have received the Legion d'Honneur, and many other applications are being processed by the French authorities. This is, inevitably, a race with time. William Southern, aged 100, who fought at the Somme and Passchendaele, was also to have received his medal yesterday. He died last Monday.
President Chirac's offer has substantially swollen the numbers of the known British survivors. Dennis Goodwin, founder of the FWWVA, who led yesterday's expedition, said 100 old soldiers unknown to veterans' groups had come forward since the French offered to decorate all living Allied soldiers of the Great War.
After the ceremony, the veterans were given a tea-party at the British Embassy by the ambassador, Sir Michael Jay, and his wife, Sylvia, assisted by British children living in Paris. The spirit and courage of the group was epitomised by Bill Lorrie, 99, a tall man in an elegant white suit. Greeted by Lady Jay on the embassy steps, he boomed: "It's very, very nice of you. I'm sorry I can't see you, but I'm delighted to meet you."